Putin puts nuke ‘deterrence’ forces on alert, West huddles

  • Amid the mounting tensions, Ukraine announced that a delegation would meet with Russian officials for talks.
People take part in a rally in support of Ukraine in Montreal. (AP)
People take part in a rally in support of Ukraine in Montreal. (AP)
Updated on Feb 28, 2022 06:54 AM IST
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ByAgencies, Kyiv/moscow

In a dramatic escalation of East-West tensions over invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on high alert on Sunday in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading Nato powers.

Amid the mounting tensions, Ukraine announced that a delegation would meet with Russian officials for talks. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he was willing to “try” talks with Russia but was skeptical, as Kyiv and Moscow prepared to meet at Ukraine’s border with Belarus on the fourth day of Russia’s invasion.

Also read | Kyiv's mayor: 'We are encircled' but full of fight

“I will be honest, as always: I do not really believe in the outcome of this meeting, but let them try,” Zelenskiy said in a video address. He added that if there was a “chance” to end war, he should take part in the talks. Zelenskiy issued the video after speaking with Belarus leader and Moscow ally Alexander Lukashenko.

The fast-moving developments came as Russian troops drew closer to Kyiv, a city of almost 3 million, street fighting broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and strategic ports in the country’s south came under pressure from the invading forces. Ukrainian defenders put up stiff resistance that appeared to slow the invasion.

Russian troops have attacked Ukraine from many directions, including from Belarusian territory, after Putin ordered the invasion in the early hours of Thursday. Kyiv has refused to hold talks in Belarus – where Moscow wants to meet – saying the country was acting as a launchpad for the invasion.

The directive to put Russia’s nuclear weapons in an increased state of readiness for launch raised fears on Sunday that the crisis could boil over into dangerous warfare. Putin’s step is “potentially putting in play forces that, if there’s a miscalculation, could make things much, much more dangerous,” said a senior US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Also read | Russia war on Ukraine risks displacing 'over 7 million people': European Union

Hours after Putin’s announcement, the top official in the European Union said the 27-nation bloc will close its airspace to Russian airlines and fund the purchase of weapons for Ukraine.

“For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The EU will also ban some pro-Kremlin media outlets, she said.

Putin, in giving the nuclear alert directive, cited not only statements by Nato members — who have rushed to reinforce the military alliance’s members in Eastern Europe — but the hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including the Russian leader himself.

Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, Putin told his defence minister and the chief of the military’s General Staff to put nuclear forces in a “special regime of combat duty”.

“Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading Nato members made aggressive statements regarding our country,” Putin said in televised comments.

US defence officials would not disclose their current nuclear posture, except to say that the military is prepared all times to defend its homeland and allies.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Putin is resorting to a pattern he used in the weeks before launching the invasion, “which is to manufacture threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression”. She told ABC’s “This Week” that Russia has not been under threat from Nato or Ukraine.

“We have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to call out what we’re seeing here,” Psaki said.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told CNN, in reaction to Russia’s nuclear alert: “This is dangerous rhetoric. This is a behaviour which is irresponsible.”

The practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Russia and the US typically have land- and submarine-based nuclear forces on alert and prepared for combat at all times, but nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not.

Around the same time as Putin’s nuclear move, Zelenskiy’s office announced that the two sides would meet at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border. The message did not give a precise time for the meeting.

Ukrainian officials initially rejected talks in Belarus, saying any discussions should take place elsewhere, since Belarus has allowed its territory to be used by Russian troops as a staging ground for the invasion.

On Sunday, the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was eerily quiet after huge explosions lit up the morning sky and authorities reported blasts at one of the airports. Only an occasional car appeared on a deserted main boulevard as a strict curfew kept people off the streets. Authorities warned that anyone venturing out with a pass would be considered a Russian saboteur.

Terrified residents instead hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian assault.

“The past night was tough – more shelling, more bombing of residential areas and civilian infrastructure,” Zelenskiy said.

Until Sunday, Russia’s troops had remained on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south of the border with Russia, while other forces rolled past to press the offensive deeper into Ukraine.

Videos posted on Ukrainian media and social networks showed Russian vehicles moving across Kharkiv and Russian troops roaming the city in small groups. One showed Ukrainian troops firing at the Russians and damaged Russian vehicles abandoned nearby.

The images underscored the determined resistance from Ukrainian forces. Ukrainians have volunteered en masse to defend their country, taking guns distributed by authorities and preparing firebombs to fight Russian forces.

Ukraine is also releasing prisoners with military experience who want to fight for the country, authorities said.

Putin hasn’t disclosed his ultimate plans, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.

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